The name of S. Balachander (1927-1990) is less well known now than it used to be, but there was a time when he was regarded by many, and certainly by himself, as a major player on the Carnatic stage. Younger readers will scoff, but there was a world before internet and Wikipedia. Indeed there was even a world before audio cassettes, when sabha concerts in towns across India, big and small, were the norm, when music reviews in the daily newspapers were the staple source of information, and when All India Radio could make or break artistes. Balachander strode that world with ease and confidence, a surprisingly volatile and voluble representative of that most stately and dignified instrument, the veena.
Great musicians dominated the Carnatic landscape in the twentieth century. The vocalists are well known and many; the instrumentalists fewer in number. The percussionists were necessarily cast in a role as accompanists to the main performer. Violinists could be accompanists. Indeed every singer had to have an accompanying violinist, but violinists could also be solo players. The veena, (and, it must be added, the flute) was always an instrument which commanded the stage on its own.
The veena is a major instrument representing in Vikram Sampath’s words, ‘wisdom, beauty and musical grace’. Thanjavur and Mysore were great centres of music with vainikas of renown such as Veena Seshanna (1852-1926), Tanjavur Dhanammal (1867-1938) and Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer (1888-1958). For all this the number of prominent veena players in the twentieth century was never large. Balachander’s contemporaries K.S. Narayanaswamy (1914-1999), Tanjavur K.P. Sivanandam (1917-2003) and Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar (1920-1997) were all honoured by the Madras Music Academy as Sangitha Kalanidhi. Emani Sankara Sastri (1922-1987) and Chitti Babu (1936-1996) were also popular and well known. However, there were really very few vainikas of distinction outside this small core. This trend continues. In the succeeding generation, very few have been able to match the musical virtuosity and great gifts of E. Gaayathri (born 1959).
Balachander was the most colourful and flashy of his generation of vainikas, and while his may not have been the voice of the veena, it was certainly the voice of the vainika. He was born in a family where music was learnt and appreciated but the veena came to his attention only when he was working in All India Radio as a sound ...
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